PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) - Sports' highest court rejected appeals by all 45 Russian athletes plus two coaches who were banned from the Pyeongchang Olympics over doping concerns in a decision announced Friday less than nine hours before the opening ceremony.
The International Olympic Committee had refused to invite the group of Russians, saying it had evidence of alleged doping in Russian sports.
After two days of hearings, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the IOC has the right to set its own standards for who is eligible.
CAS Secretary General Matthieu Reeb, reading from a statement and declining to take questions, said the IOC process "could not be described as a sanction but rather as an eligibility decision."
"The CAS panel found that the applicants did not demonstrate that the manner in which the two special commissions - the Invitation Review Panel and the Olympic Athlete from Russia Implementation Group - independently evaluated the applicants was carried out in a discriminatory, arbitrary or unfair manner. The Panel also concluded that there was no evidence the (commissions) improperly exercised their discretion."
The IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency welcomed the decision. The IOC issued a statement saying the decision "supports the fight against doping and brings clarity for all athletes."
WADA president Craig Reedie described it as "absolutely correct."
"I am delighted at the decision and the way they expressed it," Reedie told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. "They have quite clearly understood that there was systemic manipulation of the anti-doping process.
"It means the games can proceed. Athletes can get their heads down and go. This particular issue is now behind us."
The IOC's vetting process was designed to exclude Russian athletes from the games if IOC officials weren't sure they were clean, even if they hadn't been banned for doping.
The IOC subsequently invited 168 Russians to participate as "Olympic Athletes from Russia," competing in neutral uniforms under the Olympic flag in a decision designed to balance the rights of individual athletes with the need for a strong deterrent to doping.
The Russian delegation in Pyeongchang declined requests for comment, with spokesman Konstantin Vybornov saying "that's it - the story is over."
The ruling is a heavy blow to Russian medal chances.
Among those excluded are six-time gold medalist Viktor Ahn, the short track speedskater whose return to his native South Korea for the Olympics had been hotly anticipated by local fans.
Also out are cross-country skiing gold medalist Alexander Legkov and skeleton gold medalist Alexander Tretiakov, as well as potential medal contenders in biathlon, luge and bobsled.
Three former NHL players - Sergei Plotnikov, Anton Belov and Valeri Nichushkin - also lost appeals, though it was widely considered unlikely they'd have played even if they'd been successful, since the Russian roster is already full.
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart said the decision was a "a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark and sordid affair."
"You hope justice has been served but how some of these athletes can keep dirty medals from Sochi but be excluded now is hard to reconcile," Tygart said. "And why the IOC rushed the process on the Sochi medal decisions is unexplainable and a tragedy for clean athletes."
The ruling comes a day after the first Olympic competitions began and ends more than a week of uncertainty for two groups of athletes who lodged last-ditch cases to the CAS.
As well as the 45 athletes, the ruling covers a luge coach and a skeleton coach.
The IOC has refused to comment on individual Russian athletes but says it decided who to exclude using a newly obtained Moscow laboratory database with evidence of past doping offenses.
It refused to invite some Russians even after their disqualifications from the 2014 Olympics were lifted by CAS last week.
Stephen Hess, an international sports lawyer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the decision was a victory for the IOC.
"There is no absolute right to get an invitation from the IOC to come to the Olympics," Hess said in a telephone interview. "That was within the IOC's discretion, and they didn't exercise it arbitrarily. If Russia had an Olympic team, CAS might have said: 'IOC, the Russians can put them on their own team. You can't keep them out.' But Russian doesn't have an Olympic team."
The IOC pointed to a CAS statement that declared the Russians were not necessarily innocent of doping, just that the evidence was insufficient to ban them. Also, the IOC said, "there were additional elements and/or evidence, which could not be considered" in last week's CAS case "that raised suspicion about the integrity of these athletes."
U.S. athletes praised the decision and the end to uncertainty around the participation of some Russian athletes.
"That is great news," said U.S. women's skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender, who placed fourth in the Sochi Olympics - one spot behind bronze medalist Elena Nikitina, who was one of the 45 appealing her ban. U.S. bobsledder Nick Cunningham said he's tried to not focus on the will-they-or-won't-they drama surrounding the Russians.
"It's not going to change what happens to me in the next two weeks," Cunningham said. "If dirty athletes are taken out, then clean athletes will prevail. That's what I hope."
AP Sports Writers Stephen Wade, Tim Reynolds and Eddie Pells contributed to this report.
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